Saturday, June 29, 2013

Canon PowerShot SX20 IS 12-Megapixel Digital Camera with 20x Zoom, HD Video and HDMI

As with most technology products, digital cameras are getting more capable and less expensive. Arguably, nowhere has it been more evident than in TVs and digital cameras. One of the most popular types of the digital cameras are so-called "mega-zoom" cameras. Mega-zoom cameras are the ones that have 10x optical zoom or higher. They are fun to use and are very versatile.

Before digital mega-zoom digital cameras were available, you would have to buy and, even more problematic, carry around a bunch of lenses and a camera body to be able to get to 10x magnification or higher. Now you can get an excellent digital camera with 15x optical zoom (or higher) for less than $500 and frequently even for less than $300, put it in a compact camera bag and save money and energy. The only potential drawback (unless you need the best possible picture quality and are willing to spend thousands and carry big bags) is you will get less exercise.

So why is having over 10x optical zoom fun? In a nutshell, you can zoom in to magnify far-away objects while staying far from them. Sometimes it is not practical (or possible) to get close enough to the item you are shooting to get a large enough shot using a regular camera. Sometimes it is just too dangerous. A mega-zoom camera helps tremendously here.

Still, not all mega-zoom cameras are created equal. Some cameras have no image stabilization at all, resulting in blurry images at high magnification levels and/or in dim light. Some cameras rely on increased sensitivity setting (ISO) to increase the shutter speed thereby reducing blur caused by the shake when the camera is handheld, but sometimes at an expense of increased noise and/or decreased detail level.

At the top of the mega-zoom hierarchy are cameras with optically-stabilized zooms. These cameras move an optical element within the lens (some shift the imaging sensor itself) to reduce or eliminate blur caused by shooting handheld. The Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is on of these cameras and a successor to the well-respected Canon S10 IS, which itself was a direct descendant of the Canon S5 IS.

Canon over the recent years has produced a lot of different models with image stabilization. The top-of-the-line compact mega-zoom digital cameras from Canon went through quite a few iterations and have been very popular. I have used many mega-zoom cameras, including the new 18x-zoom Panasonic FZ28, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS, the Fuji S6000fd, Fuji S700 and virtually all Canon SX20's predecessors.

Although all mega-zoom cameras are fun, the most fun to use cameras for me are the ones with over 15x optical zoom, optical image stabilization and 28mm wide angle. A wide angle in the range of 28mm (in terms of 35-mm film equivalent) allows you to capture a wide picture, which is useful indoors or taking pictures of buildings without having to move too far backward.

So, in light of the above, I wanted to try the new Canon PowerShot SX20 IS. In part because of its 20x optical zoom, image stabilization and 28mm wide angle (35mm-equivalent), in part because of its 12-Megapixel resolution. I got the Canon SX20 IS and after using it and comparing it to other stabilized-zoom cameras (as well as its predecessor, the SX10 IS), I sold it on eBay (just as the other cameras that I get to try).

I sold it not because it is a bad camera or there is necessarily a better mega-zoom alternative, but simply because I am happy to have a digital SLR and mega-zoom feature of the Canon SX20 is not something I need on a daily basis. Perhaps if I travel I will get a mega-zoom, but for now my Canon XT will do fine.

Below is the review of Canon SX20 IS.

Is It An Improvement Over the Canon SX10 IS? 

A replacement for the last year's popular Canon SX10 IS, which in turn was a replacement of the Canon PowerShot S5 IS, the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS is a digital camera with optical image stabilization, 20x zoom, 12-Megapixel resolution (vs. 10MP of the SX10), ISO up to 3200 and 2.5-inch LCD. The camera has face detection and features servo AF tracking. It adds an HDMI out and an ability to record HD video in 720p resolution.

As the SX10 IS before it, the Canon SX20 IS has an articulated LCD screen, uses 4 AA batteries and stores photos on SD memory cards. The amazing 20x optical zoom and optical image stabilization work together to give you sharp pictures when shooting handheld at long distances or indoors. This is probably the highest optical zoom on the market today and optical image stabilization makes this 20x optical zoom usable without introducing blurriness when shooting handheld (of course to a reasonable level).

The predecessors, like the Canon SX10 IS and the S5 IS before it were impressive and very popular cameras. The only things I did not like about them were their use of 4 AA batteries, the fact that the filter adaptors were sold separately, whereas Panasonic FZ cameras came with them and the flimsy lens cap, as well as the fact that the flash had to be raised manually (unlike Panasonic cameras where you could just push a button). The Canon SX20 retains the hot shoe adapter for external flashes added in the S5 IS. And it comes with a lens hood to fight flare.

About Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

The Canon S20 IS is a 12-Megapixel digital camera with 20x optical zoom (28-560mm in 35-mm equivalent), optical image stabilization with maximum apertures of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/5.7 at full telephoto. The camera is relatively compact and feels solid, features USB 2.0 connectivity that is fast.

It stores images on an SD card in JPEG format (including SDHC). The Canon SX20 IS is available in black color. It has a 2.5-inch fully-articulated LCD screen. The 20x optical zoom optics features optical image stabilization. In addition to digital still photographs, the camera can record video clips with stereo sound up to 720p HD resolution (1280x720). You can output video and sound to your TV (be it your pictures or video clips) using the supplied audio/video cable in PAL or NTSC. The camera also has an HDMI out for its high-resolution videos.

The Canon SX20 has face detection that works in conjunction with automatic white balance, focus and even exposure.


The Canon SX20 IS lets you shoot at the resolutions of up to 12 Megapixels and lets you print enlargements or crop the part of the picture and print it with excellent results. And, of course, it is more than enough for the standard 6x4-inch or 5x7-inch prints.

The camera has an autofocus assist light for better and faster focusing in low-light conditions. It works well in dim light.

The camera features selectable ISO between 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200 as well as Auto and High ISO Auto. It also has manual focus (with focus bracketing) in addition to automatic 1-spot focus (the focus spot in auto mode can be moved to any position on the screen by using [SET] and arrow buttons) as well as face detection. The face detection not only adjusts the focus, but also the exposure to make sure that faces of subjects are properly exposed.

Metering and Exposure

The exposure modes include Program AE, Aperture and Shutter Priority mode, and even full Manual mode. The shutter speed can be set between 15 and 1/3,200 sec with speeds slower than 1.3 sec available in Shutter Priority or Manual mode and operating with noise reduction.

The light metering can be selected between Evaluative, Center-Weighted and Spot (center or AF point). I find Spot and Center-Weighted modes useful when taking pictures of people at distances where the flash doesn't reach in backlight. In Evaluative metering mode, the faces might turn out underexposed, unless you dial some exposure compensation.

In Spot mode, you can set metering to properly expose the face. Also, the Spot metering mode can help you figure out the proper exposure in difficult lighting conditions be metering off the object with known tonal characteristics and then dialing some exposure compensation. The Canon SX20 also has a live histogram for evaluating the exposure and the over/underexposure amounts. The evaluative metering incorporates data from the face detection system to ensure that faces are properly exposed (as well as focused).

LCD and Viewfinder

The Canon SX20 has a fully articulated 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 pixels that covers 100% of the view. The LCD requires quite a lot of force to flip outward or rotate, but feels sturdy as a result.

In addition to the LCD, there is an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Since it is expensive (and difficult if not impossible) to make a 20x zooming optical viewfinder and impossible to easily confirm focus in a non-SLR optical viewfinder, the Canon SX20 IS has an EVF.

Both the LCD and EVF are fluid, has pleasing colors and good resolution. Both are fluid, even in low light.
The LCD is well-visible in regular conditions, but in sunlight, visibility decreases and you have to use the EVF, which works well in sunlight. Its resolution is not as high as the LCD's, but is adequate.

Movie Mode

The Canon SX20 has a built-in stereo microphone for recording sounds while filming video clips and a speaker, which can be used for operational sounds or to play back the sounds recorded. The camera can record video up to HD resolution of 720p (1280x720) and can output the HD signal over its HDMI connection.

Admittedly, the 720p resolution is not 1080i/p, but it is more than sufficient for virtually all uses.


The camera has a Macro mode as well as Super Macro mode, in which it can focus as close as 0 inches. That's right - zero inches (or cm)! See below for more details.

Focus Range:

Normal: 50 cm (1.6 ft.) - infinity (W)/ 1 m (3.3 ft.) - infinity (T)
Macro: 1 - 50 cm (0.39 in. to 1.6 ft.)
Super Macro: 0 - 10 cm (0 to 3.9 in.)


The camera is powered by 4 AA-sized batteries. Four disposable AA batteries are included, but rechargeable batteries are more economical and last longer on one charge than disposable alkaline batteries. So, obviously, you have to get your rechargeable batteries, preferably NiMH of high capacity and a charger if you plan to use the camera at all as the alkaline batteries that are included don't last long and cannot be recharged. I have used four of my Rayovac 2300 mAh rechargeable NiMH batteries.

I do not particularly like cameras that don't come with rechargeable batteries, unless they are inexpensive. The advantage of using AA batteries is the ease of finding replacement rechargeable or disposable batteries. And if you use high-capacity rechargeable NiMH batteries, you can get more shots out of 4 AA batteries than from a small rechargeable Li-Ion battery pack, which I know from my experience with the Panasonic FZ5's battery.

There are disadvantages though. First is the price of batteries and the charger, which you have to buy separately. Them there is the weight and inconvenience of having to deal with 4 batteries instead of one. The SX20 IS is already heavier than some competing models, e.g. Panasonic FZ18 and is even heavier when batteries were loaded. Another disadvantage (which mostly applies to cameras powered by 2 AA batteries, unlike this model that uses 4) is the slow flash recycle time.

On Resolution

When comparing with the last year's model (the Canon SC10 IS), the difference between 10MP and 12MP is minimal. For majority of people who only print 6x4 or 5x7 photos and do not crop, there is no difference at all.


I found the Canon SX20 to be well built and have a solid feel. The camera has a SLR-style body and is relatively convenient to hold. Upon arrival, I loaded my four 2300 mAh Rayovac NiMH batteries in the camera, inserted my 2GB SD Kingston Elite Pro card and was ready to shoot.

In the Box

The camera comes with 4 AA-sized disposable batteries, a neck strap, a stereo video cable, USB cable, a lens cap, a lens hood and a CD-ROM disc with software and manuals.


The SX20's operation is impressively fast. The power-up takes less than 2 seconds (mostly taken by the lens extension) and is relatively quiet. The camera focuses very fast as well (under a second), seemingly as fast as the Panasonic FZ18.

The zooming is the most impressive aspect of this camera. It is precise and rather fast (and seemingly quieter that that of the older S5's, perhaps due to the use of the VCM motor). And the slower speed lets you fine-tune the composition precisely.

The shutter lag when pre-focused is virtually absent and the picture is taken almost instantaneously. The shot-to-shot delay is a bit more than one second. In high-speed shooting modes, the images were captured at about 2 fps.

Shooting with flash is slower since the flash needs time to recharge. I was not entirely surprised to see that the flash recycle time still can reach 6 seconds (shooting in low light at f/5.7). At least the screen did not go blank in the meantime, unlike some 2-AA battery equipped Canons of the A-line. And the 2-AA models recycle their flashes even slower.

The flash has red-eye reduction modes, which work rather well, but sometimes don't eliminate the red eye completely. No worries - I can fix that in Photoshop CS2 very easily.


The camera focuses fast, even in dim light and even at full telephoto. It had no issues in any kind of light indoors.

Manual Focus

I liked the camera's manual focus ability. When focusing manually, you see the focus area enlarged to help you fine-tune your focus and you also see the distance markings. Truth be told, I find manual focus rarely needed as the automatic focus works really well. Still, bulkier cameras with focus rings, e.g. Fuji S6000fd or real SLRs work best for fine-tuning focus at telephoto. I do use manual focus with my Canon XT dSLR.

Battery Life

The image stabilization has several modes: Off, Continuous, Shoot Only, Panning. The camera comes with mode set to Continuous by default, which is a battery hog.

I haven't used the continuous image stabilization as it reduces battery life and, more importantly, produces slightly more motion blur in images in comparison to the image stabilization during the shutter release only. I got good pictures, but still not so good battery life.

I was able to take more than 170 pictures without seeing a low-battery warning and did not discharge the butteries completely.

Picture Quality

When asked for camera recommendations, I catch myself thinking about (and frequently recommending) Canon cameras. One of the reasons is the fact that they (at least currently) simply do not have poorly-designed cameras, at least in the major A, SD and SX segments. There is a rare exception - Canon SX200 IS (not to be confused with this Canon SX20 IS).

Other manufacturers have better (in my opinion) cameras in some specific areas. But as far as the overall lineup goes, Canon cannot be beat. One of the outcomes of this is the uniformly excellent picture quality of Canon cameras (again with one caveat, see above). True, some of them (e.g. small SD-series cameras) have slightly blurry corners. But overall, Canon cameras have uniformly excellent colors, good sharpness and produce images that look good printed and displayed on computer screen.

The Canon SX20 is no exception. It produces excellent pictures. They are richly saturated, sharp from wide angle to telephoto and have pleasing colors. I really like the sky colors and the way the camera renders clouds, which is something that Canon cameras always did well. In fact, I always thought that Canon cameras produced best-looking colors, which is not something I can say about Panasonic (otherwise my cameras of choice).

The image stabilization of the Canon SX20 worked well and let me take handheld photos at full telephoto at 1/150 and sometimes at slower speeds. I also could take some handheld photos at 1/10 at full wide angle. This is much better than the rule of the recommended slowest handheld shutter speeds (1/equivalent focal length) suggests. Without image stabilization I wouldn't be able to take pictures at the above shutter speeds. 1/1000 at telephoto and 1/25 at wide angle would be the slowest I could use.

The lens of the camera exhibits very slight barrel distortion and no noticeable pincushion distortion at telephoto. There is some chromatic aberration (CA) to be found in high-contrast scenes, especially at the telephoto end of the zoom. As is usually the case with mega-zoom cameras, the telephoto shots have slightly soft corners, but nothing major. And the sharper pictures are attainable if you stay away from the extremes of the focal lengths and apertures.

I mostly used the lowest ISO available (ISO 80) and saw no noise. As is always the case, at higher sensitivity settings, the noise starts to appear. When viewed on the computer screen (at full 12-MP resolution), at ISO 200, you can see noise appear in the shadows/darker areas and ISO 400 has quite detectable noise, and the ISO 800 features even worse noise, which becomes rather bad and the detail level suffers too. Fortunately, you can avoid having to use it in most situations by simply using a slower shutter speed and/or larger apertures (e.g. F2.8 at wide angle).

Also helpful in the regard of low-light shooting is the image stabilization, which allows you to use slower speeds handheld without fear of motion blur appearing in your pictures. But if you have to have a faster shutter speed, then you have to use ISO 400-1,600. Surprisingly, the noise at ISO 800 is not as bad as I expected and ISO 800 photos can be printed at 4x6. You can print ISO 1,600 0r 3,200 pictures, but I would only recommend it in situations where you have no other choice. And for larger prints, which camera does well at due to its 12-Megapixel resolution, stick to the lower end of the ISO spectrum.

Face Detection

The SX20 IS features face detection technology. The face detection works surprisingly well, finding faces in the frame, showing you that it found them by displaying focusing rectangles over them, focusing on them and ensuring that faces are not over- or underexposed.

Ease of Use

Once you get used to Canon menu systems, they are pretty easy to use. Overall, the ease of use is very high and almost reaches my all-time favorite (Panasonic). And obviously, if you used a Canon camera before, you will not need much time, if at all.

Computer Connectivity

The USB 2.0 on this Canon is a "real" USB 2.0 High Speed - the transfer speeds are fast. I always prefer to use my memory card reader however: for speed and convenience. So I have not tested the transfer speed directly from the camera and instead used the card reader.

Is It An Improvement Over The Canon SX10 IS?

The SX20 IS is very similar to its predecessor, the Canon SX10 IS. It features a couple of major improvements over the SX10. The most important improvements are the resolution of still photos and videos and an HDMI out,

Based on experience with previous models of the same series (e.g. S5 IS, S3 IS) and on the perceived build quality of this model, the camera should be durable, unless subjected to extreme conditions. Obviously, water, sand and drops will render the statement above irrelevant.

Bottom Line

The Canon PowerShot SX20IS is a great update on the already impressive SX10 and is an excellent choice if you need a camera with a monster 20x optical zoom, 12-Megapixel resolution and optical image stabilization. Its wide-angle capability and HD video recording with an HDMI out are also very cool features. The only reservation I have (which is something most people have no problem with) is its use of four AA batteries. Otherwise, I highly recommend it.


Check out the updated model: Canon PowerShot SX500 IS 16.0 MP Digital Camera with 30x Wide-Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3.0-Inch LCD (Black) - it has 30x wide-angle zoom and 16-Megapixel resolution.

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